Opinion: America’s tenuous grasp of truth under Trump

President Trump delivers his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017.
President Trump delivers his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017.
(Shawn Thew / EPA)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018. I don’t have to remind you what happened one year ago today (has it only been a year?), so let’s just get on with taking a look back at the week in Opinion.

What marks Donald Trump’s presidency more conspicuously than its other notorieties — and there are many from which to choose — is the assault on the idea of shared truth, that what happens in reality is objectively verifiable, and that from there people can form divergent opinions. Yes, we’ve always had a fringe element in American discourse on topics ranging from vaccination to climate change, but blithe charges of “fake news” in response to the reporting of any event that portrays the president in an unflattering light adds a whole new dimension to it.

In a piece this week on the increasingly blurred line between fact and fiction, The Times Editorial Board notes that while a Rand Corp. study sounding the alarm on on this dangerous trend does not place much of the blame on Trump, the president ought to take more seriously how his deception may be changing American society:

Consider a report released this week by the highly respected, nonpartisan Rand Corp. The report wasn’t about Trump; indeed, he is mentioned only once in nearly 300 pages of text. But it suggests, ominously, that we are living in a period in which the line between fact and fiction is being dangerously muddied. Using examples like the large numbers of Americans who don’t believe the scientific consensus on the safety of GMO foods or vaccines or the existence of human-caused climate change — and focusing as well on the increasing distrust of formerly respected sources of factual information — the report concludes that what it calls “truth decay” poses a direct threat to democracy. Among the consequences cited by the Rand scholars: the erosion of political and civil discourse, political paralysis at the federal and state level, and increased risk of individual disengagement from political and civic life.

“Having a constructive discussion about what policies toward immigrants should look like or what objectives and outcomes policy should aim to achieve is difficult without a common set of facts — such as the number of immigrants entering the United States, the economic role of immigrants, and the level of crime perpetrated by these immigrants,” the report says. But such conversations can’t be held, the report suggests, if stakeholders are stuck arguing about the basic terms and underlying facts of the debate....

Sometimes it feels as if Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s old saying that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts has been turned on its head so that facts are now derived from opinions rather than the other way around. That needs to stop.

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The “Fake News Awards” are an escalation of Trump’s assault on the press. His mock-awards show may come across as a pointless, if slightly disturbing, sideshow in the United States, but the president’s constant mocking of journalists is having real consequences in countries where reporters risk their lives to do their job, write Evan McMullin and Mindy Finn: “Although some may laugh when Trump hands out his Fake News Awards, we should call them what they are: a dangerous assault on truth, the Constitution and American democracy.” L.A. Times

The 13 emaciated and neglected Turpin children were, unsurprisingly, homeschooled. That fits in with a disturbing patter of abuse cases, note Rachel Coleman and Kathryn Brightbill. Abusers tend to keep their kids from making contact with mandated reporters such as teachers, the writers say, and California’s inexcusably lax homeschooling laws help them. Their solution: “Force contact with mandatory reporters. States could require annual assessments by a certified teacher and annual doctor’s visits, creating at least two opportunities for a trained professional to recognize abuse.” L.A. Times

Do #MeToo critics even know what the movement stands for? Ann Friedman doesn’t think so, so she reminds them what survivors of sexual assault and harassment want: “They want an apology. They want reassurance that what happened to them was wrong. They want to express solidarity with other people who have been similarly injured. They want perpetrators’ reputations to reflect the private harm they’ve done. And survivors want accountability: They want to know the rest of us are paying attention to their words.” L.A. Times

How studying one tree species can tell us the history of drought in California: Blue oaks can live for centuries, and the stumps of trees that have been deceased for generations are sprinkled around the state. Studying their cores provides a detailed history of the dry and wet years of the past millennium in California, and an analysis of the tree rings reveals a grim fact about our most recent epic drought: While precipitation-wise it was not the driest of the last 1,000 or so years, it was probably the most severe. Pacific Standard Magazine

What if diversity isn’t America’s greatest strength? And should a country even try to be “strong”? Columnist Jonah Goldberg parses a phrase being thrown around in the immigration debate, even by Republicans, and concludes: “I don’t want America to be weaker, depending on how you define weakness. But maybe the overriding problem with the debate, on both sides, is the assumption that strength is its own reward.” L.A. Times